After setting several major records, including swimming the 28 mile length around Manhattan, Diana Nyad quit her athletic career for sports journalism, but one swim had always eluded her. Thirty-three years later, at the age of 60, she (Annette Bening) attempted it again with her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) acting as her coach. She would fail again and again, but persistence paid off and after leaving Havana on August 31, 2013, the swimmer who arrived on a Key West beach two days and five hours later was "NYAD."
Laura's Review: B+
After making a series of documentaries about incredible adventures and daring feats, directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ("Free Solo," "The Rescue") make their feature debut with a story about an incredible adventure and daring feat. While none of the controversy surrounding Nyad’s triumph is noted, Chin has stated the documentary pair looked into accusations and found them invalid and indeed, I’d have to agree with Nyad that anyone complaining about the special suit made by box jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara (Jeena Yi) to keep her alive after their venom almost killed her on a prior attempt, especially its claustrophobic looking face mask, is being pretty petty. And while the film obviously celebrates Nyad’s incredible triumph at the age of 64, Bening and screenwriter Julia Cox, adapting Diana Nyad's memoir 'Find a Way,' make no bones about her off-putting egotism.
The film is both a threefold character study and an adventure story, Bening, Foster and Rhys Ifans as swim navigator John Bartlett all fully inhabiting exceptional people with very different dreams and motivations. When we first meet best friends Bonnie and Diana, they’re visiting a Petco, Diana hounding Bonnie not to make a fuss of her 60th. Bonnie clearly recognizes this is a clarion call to do exactly that, her friend always looking to be the center of attention, and indeed, Diana’s clearly pleased as punch when ‘Surprise!’ is shouted by assembled party goers. One of Foster’s most endearing and well played aspects of Bonnie’s character is how she gently but firmly redirects her friend from hogging the spotlight time after time.
Bonnie is definitely not on board when, over a game of ping pong (‘Let’s switch sides,’ Diana says after Bonnie wins, ‘the light’s better on your end’), Diana announces she’s going to take a 2nd stab at the 111 mile Cuba swim at the age of 60 and that Bonnie should be her coach. But as Bonnie always has difficulty resisting her friend’s demands, soon the pair are fund raising and running open water test swims in Mexico (the first of which finds Bonnie cramping up in cold after four hours). After Bonnie identifies Bartlett as the ideal navigator, Diana’s interview with him is so demeaning it’s a wonder he takes the job. He’ll recommend their captain, Dee Brady (Karly Rothenberg), as a woman who never speaks but is the best in the biz. And as Diana is insisting on doing the swim without a disqualifying shark cage, Luke Tipple (Luke Cosgrove), who’s created an electronic shark shield, is added to the team along with a medic.
It will take four attempts and four years for Diana to finally realize her dream in completing the ‘Mount Everest’ of swims, a feat no other, including her 28 year-old self, had been able to accomplish. What’s so good about the way “NYAD” has been structured is that each try teaches lessons and evolves characters, the third one so dramatic (Diana insists on going against Bartlett’s sound advice), it looks like the team will never reassemble. We see Diana suffer an allergic reaction to medication (the first medic is canned and replaced by Garland Scott’s Jon Rose), nausea, exposure, immense fatigue, that almost fatal jellyfish encounter, a shark, raging seas and hallucinations vividly recreated by special effects which render stars as colorful fireworks and a ‘Yellow Brick Road to the Taj Mahal’ beneath the sea. Throughout it all, Diana relives flashbacks to the abuse she suffered as a fourteen year-old (Anna Harriette Pittman) at the hands of her ‘asshole’ father (Johnny Solo) and sexually abusive coach (Eric T. Miller), an experience the film suggests formed her abrasive behavior.
"Top Gun: Maverick" cinematographer Claudio Miranda shooting above, upon and below the surface of pools and the ocean, keeps us involved in both Diana’s experience and the team which enabled her, Alexandre Desplat's violin and piano score at turns rolling with the ocean and gentling in calm waters. But as fine as the production is, it is the actors which impress the most, especially Jodie Foster’s devoted friend, a character with more complex motivations than Bening’s obsessive (the latter is most impressive stumbling out of the water in Key West, the actress looking almost demented to perfectly convey the physical and mental toll on Nyad). Ifans is wonderful as well, his character essential in choosing the right path through changing weather and currents, his method of dealing with Diana more subtle than Bonnie’s tough love. It is heartening indeed to see Bening deliver Nyad’s slurred speech at the end of her swim, encouraging perseverance, slamming ageism and most especially, finally disabusing the notion that what she did was a solitary experience, but reliant on her team.
Netflix releases "NYAD" in select theaters on 10/20/23. It begins streaming on Netflix on 11/3/23.